From Rain Shdaow Review II (2012)
It was a good workshop today. One of the yards was still locked down after a two hundred man race riot the week before, so the workshop was smaller than usual and more solemn. We read the poem “What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver. Carver depicts in the poem his being told he has advanced lung and brain cancer. He writes:
He said it doesn’t look good
He said it looks bad in fact real bad
He said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
About any more being there than that.
His unsentimental conversation portrays the ways we deny and avoid our mortality, until it knocks on the door of here and now. Many of the men in the workshop have medical conditions, some of them serious. The poem struck a chord of empathy and the no-nonsense, understated gravity of the subject fit with the rules of the conversational road that govern prison discourse.
Later in the poem, the doctor asks:
Are you a religious man
Do you kneel down
In forest groves and let yourself ask for help
When you come to a waterfall
Mist blowing against your face and arms
Do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments?
While I can’t imagine these actual words passing between doctor and patient, they pushed the poem from medical bad news into spiritual questions, the kinds of questions literature and the arts, if they are good, deal with. I told them about William Carlos Williams writing “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The gist of the discussion became one about ways that the arts are a way to cope with the big questions, the hard issues – tragedy, trauma, loss, and love.
The men in the workshop are not what I would call sensitive types. The tattoos and tough poses make it hard to raise such topics, but once raised, the inmates are not afraid to talk or to listen.
One of the men said that the thing he dislikes most about being in prison is that he is never alone, that he has no inner life. He has to work from 5:30 AM until 6:30 PM, stay out of trouble, and keep up his guard. “The place is noisy, always distracting,” he says. “My cellie talks and snores. When we were locked down, he went to solitary and I actually had some time to think, to think about my family outside, and read. I read the whole copy of the Missouri Review. It was good; all those guys know how to write, technique-wise anyway, but I have to say I’m not smart enough to get half of what they are talking about.”
Join the club, I thought to myself. That is much of the fashion of academic literature these days. Some of it strives at times to be as opaque as possible, with labyrinthine structures that make finding meaning difficult at best. But that’s another essay.
His other point about an interior life is one well-taken. Whether in prison or out in the “free world,” quiet and focus are in short supply. Writing is one of the better ways I gain access to those inner spaces. But writing does not always serve to connect the inner with the outer.
Another man stated that he only lets down his guard in the workshops. “I can talk about things in here. I’ve known some of these guys for years. We help each other when we can.” I did not need to point out that the lines that divide races in prison blur some in the workshops. We all struggle with ideas, with ways of finding the words that will do justice to our subjects.
“Write clearly and well about what you want to write about.” I said. “Having a message is not a bad thing, but don’t let a simple message get in the way of the art. Your writing doesn’t have to preach or clobber your reader over the head with your point. But don’t let high flying flourish and art get in the way of a message if you have one.”
We talked about what makes writing art, as opposed to, say, journalism or porn, and about publishing and what kinds of writing will likely make it into our literary Magazine, Rain Shadow. One of the men asked if he could tell it like it was on the streets, “having to break doors down and stuff. Don’t people need to know that? Would they read about it?”
I asked “Are you kidding? Look at half the stuff on television and film. People love that stuff. But I won’t publish cheap shots or sensationalism that has no literary merit. No glorifying violence or drugs. No bragging about crime. There’s plenty of that, but not much quality writing about the hard truths.”
“Here’s some bad news,” I continued. “There is not much of a market for quality writing. Happy endings, the good guys winning, the world going to hell in a hand-basket – yes, but not complex human stories.”
Sometimes, I think, I write for the sake of what needs to be said, no matter whether or not anyone will read the words, art (if I can call it that) for the sake of itself, or for the artist, or for the desire to connect. I tell them so.
Then one of the inmates read a poem “If Yes Were All That Was” about what his world would be like with opportunity. It was a good poem and I will type it up this week. Other men were writing ideas on their writing pads, the illegal materials of marking a life. We had broken through to something, something bordering on magic, on timelessness, on touching something as subtle as it is elusive.
The workshop ended as a guard rattled his keys, a sign to shut it down.
We returned desks and chairs to their original places, and packed up the magazines, books, and folders. I carried the tub out of the room as the guard closed and locked the door.
I followed the inmates down the hall to the door that leads to the gate before opening onto the yard. From the back they walked like any group of students I have seen after a good class. They were the ones that made it that way. Muses have a way of finding these moments no matter where they take place.